Bolly-wooded devotion


back to issue

Many young people are first exposed to film-derived melodies upon hearing them in recycled versions by local folksingers; for such people, the primary associations of these tunes may be village life rather than cinema.1


FOR many of us Malabaris, our first encounter with the Hindustani film songs were with the melodies, which were recycled in parody Mappila songs. To trace the reception and circulation of Hindustani music in Malabar would be a laborious and perilous effort. Malabar was always been a porous cosmopolitan space with mediations from various translocal cultural and social moorings.

While thinking about Hindustani music, one cannot but recall the Malabari port cities like Calicut, Kochi and Ponnani, which have century’s long affinity with Hindustani music and musicians, and also nurtured great artists and connoisseurs on its shores. New people with new lifestyles stranded along with the oceanic waves, not only foregrounded their footprints in coastal areas, rather into the river basins that connected the hinterland of Malabar to the ocean.

In this course of acculturation towards inland Malabar, cosmopolitan Hindustani film music underwent sonic vernacularization and appropriation into the traditional musical genres, such as Mappila songs of Malabari Muslims. This article attempts to explore the reception of Hindustani film music in Malabar, its sonic verna-cularization through the Mappila songs, with an extended discussion over the camaraderie of renowned music director M.S. Baburaj and famous Mappila singer A.V. Muhammed.

The coming of Hindustani sound cinemas in 1931 was a breakthrough moment in the history of South Asian music, which immediately resulted in the production and diffusion of film songs crossing boundaries: by the first gramophone records in 1934, radio broadcastings in the 1940s, and later through the technologically advanced cassettes, VCD/DVDs and television. Along with the adaptations and adoptions from the folk, classical and other musical genres of both West and East, reciprocally, the Hindustani film songs extended their sphere of reception far beyond the territorial and cultural borders, becoming popular across South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far West.

For a lot of people, predominantly in the Hindustani speaking North Indian states, some in South India and beyond, Hindustani film songs and music deeply marked its presence during rites of passage from birth to death, and at festive and devotional performative contexts. Apart from the expensive gramophone records, radio was the main source of listening to Hindustani film songs in the initial days. However, during the 1950s,the then Information and Broadcasting Minister B.K. Keskar’s attempts to cleanse the impure foreign cultural sensibilities from the public, restricted the broadcasting of film songs on All India Radio, which turned the listeners to other mediated sources.


Following the mass demand for Hindustani film songs, Radio Ceylon started the Binaca Geetmala film song programme in 1952 and continued till 1988 with much appreciation and popularity across South-Southeast Asia and beyond. This marked the translocal amplification of Hindustani musical soundscape on an unprecedented scale.

A.V. Muhammed and L.R. Anjali on a Columbia vinyl record sleeve (credit:


Discussing the hitherto scholarship on Hindustani film music, acknowledging the scant attention in general, ‘the songs are almost entirely discussed in terms of filmic "text", in their visual or narrative contexts, with minimal, if any, discussion of musical sounds.’2 There has been considerable research in the last couple of decades, providing socio-political, historical, religious, global, media and technological perspectives on Hindustani film music. The diverged discussions took place on the cosmopolitan and transregional entanglements of Hindustani film music and its vernacular influences, or impact in traditional genres, provides a complementary perspective to this study, with a new synthesized understanding of both.

Jayson Beaster-Jones in his book on the cosmopolitan mediations of Hindustani film songs, laments about the scant scholarly attention given to musical sound and its cosmopolitan orientations.3 Departing from his concentration on the cosmopolitan character and elements in or in the making of the Hindustani film music, I primarily focus on the cosmopolitan reception of such musical sounds.


Delving into the influence of Hindustani film music on traditional or folk genres, considering musical sound, Peter Manuel and Anna Morcom discuss the usage of recycled film melodies or tunes by folk singers and the very popular production and reception of such parodies in vernaculars.4 The Hindustani film tunes were widely used in the North Indian genres like nautanki, biraha, rasiya, bhajan, qawwali, naat and in other folk traditions beyond the national boundaries, like songs in praise to the Prophet Muhammed in Nigeria.5 Reciprocally, the stock tunes in such traditional or folk genres were also appropriated in film music.

A.V. Muhammed on stage with his co-artists (credit: AVM Rafi collection).

Peter Manuel identifies the long history of such reciprocal appropriations between and betwixt different Indian musical genres, and refers to this practice as parody, without any pejorative or satirical connotations, but denotes the setting of new texts to borrowed tunes.6 In his Marxian class based analysis of Hindustani film songs and their parodies, Manuel argues that most of the folk genres using film tunes were predominantly lower class in their audience orientation.7 While making parodies, the appropriated film songs are removed from their original performance contexts to re-signify a very different genre-ic or community meaning, giving more care to the local characteristics of the performance, including ‘regional dialects, topical text contents, simple instrumentations, and the idiosyncratic vocal styles of the singers.’8 In the case of Mappila songs with borrowed tunes from the Hindustani film songs, one could see the intersection of aforesaid features, to say, a resignification of the performance context and meaning from secular to devotional, usage of Arabi Malayalam dialect, and most importantly, the idiosyncratic vocal styles of the Mappila singers.


Each port city in Malabar has different stories to narrate about their encounters with Hindustani music and its widespread practice among denizens. The port city of Ponnani was famous from medieval times for its political and economic importance in the Indian Ocean commerce and trade, in which the prominent pattemari (dhow) trade in Ponnani was very active till the late 1970s. In those days, dhows predominantly plied between Bombay and Ponnani, loaded with spices, salt and timber. But on the deck, the Khalasis (dhow workers) carried back ghazals, qawwalis, film songs and musical instruments with them from Bombay ports.9


During their month-long arduous journeys in dhows, musicking sessions were very frequent on board. Along with Mappila and folk songs, they sang Hindustani ditties learned from their stop-offs at North Indian dargahs and cultural centres, which inspired them to pastiche Hindustani musical styles to their native genres, resulting in a unique musical tradition of Kadalpattus. Kadalpattus are still extant and prevalent among the old generation in their musical club gatherings at Ponnani.

Kochi is a city of creole cultures, of Anglo-Indians, Arabs, Bengalis, Gujaratis, Marathis, Deccanis, Kutchi Memons, et al., who moored here as traders or travellers. Together they evolved a hybrid culture of music and art. Among them, the Deccanis, who came from Hyderabad around two centuries back, were famous for their music, replete with Hindustani ghazals and qawwalis, which they popularized among the natives.


While talking about Kochi and its Hindustani roots, we cannot but remember the name of H. Mehboob, born to a Deccani Muslim couple, who was celebrated by the name Mehboob Bhai. He was one of the pioneers in incorporating Hindustani musical elements into Malayalam film music, and in composing Malayalam songs based on Hindi film melodies. He was well acquainted with qawwali and ghazal genres, and composed a number of Malayalam songs in qawwali and ghazal styles for films, marriage mehfils and casual concerts, which were very popular. It is believed that child Mehboob spent most of his time at a nearby military barrack of the British Bengal battalion from where he chanced on Hindustani songs and got his primary knowledge of music.

Moving to Calicut, a melting pot of cultures, especially for music and musicians, the people here welcomed Hindustani musicians from the far North to celebrate important events and decorate their evening clubs. This city can name any number of artists from the North who spent a large part of their lives going from one mehfil to another; most of them were frequent visitors, who later settled here seeking patronage, and earned a number of disciples and patrons. Among them, Mankeshkar Rao, Dilipchand Jogi, Kumar Ustad, Sharat Chandra Marate and Jan Muhammed were very popular.10

In Malabar, there were no royal courts or the gharana system to offer patronage for such itinerant artists, but music clubs and various trading communities in Calicut opened up their houses and rooftop halls for mehfils, and supported them economically to set up a new life in this city. Among them, Jan Muhammed was an extraordinary musician from Bengal, a well known name among the Hindustani musicians of the 1920s, who frequently visited Calicut for mehfils, and later lived in this city after marrying a native woman from Calicut. The legendary Muhammed Sabir, aka M.S. Baburaj, was born to this couple. He primary learned Hindustani music from his accomplished father and became an expert playing the harmonium and jal tarang.


By the end of the 1940s, gramophone music and records had become popular among music lovers of Calicut. The Calicut Phono House was one such pioneering centre, where people crowded to listen to their favorite Hindustani film songs and other classical numbers. The broadcasting of Binaca Geetmala from Radio Ceylon, which aired Hindustani film hit songs on audience requests, was also very popular. As the gramophone and radio were expensive gadgets at the time, people found more time for musicking in evening clubs and halls, and at rooftop mehfils. However, Muhammed Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey influenced everyday listening and became a popular presence in the Malabari soundscape.

M.S. Baburaj with his harmonium (credit: Shaluraj collection).

Meanwhile, Baburaj was still evolving as a musician, from being a street singer as a teenager, to lead singer in marriage mehfils, a crowd puller in Communist Party programmes, a music director in theatre, to numero uno in the Malayalam film music industry in its early days. He composed a number of evergreen hit songs for Malayalam films, introducing a unique style that blended various musical genres, not only of Hindustani raga based musical traditions such as khayal, ghazal, qawwali and tumri, but also following varieties of indigenous folk genres like that of Mappila songs, with which he was well acquainted.


Baburaj was very active and busy composing music for Malayalam films from the 1950s in Madras, but was eventually sidelined by newcomers in the 1970s. Subsequently, he found more time to compose Mappila songs and became part of Mappila song troops back home in Calicut. ‘Illa duniyavil khair cheyyum pooman’ and ‘vishwa prapanchattin ake rasoole’ are the best examples of his mastery in composing Mappila songs. V.M. Kutty (a famous Mappila singer) vividly remembers Baburaj’s blessed presence in his musical troop from 1975 to 1978, as a guest artist, composer, trainer and accompanist, till his death.11


Baburaj and his music have invited little scholarly attention, but we do find some biographical or fictional accounts about his life and musical oeuvres. Some of them have theorized Baburaj’s music and life in a class-ical political understanding, as a resistance to the elitist film music industry and middle class imagination of sound. Some have fictionalized his hardships during childhood days; others explored the Hindustani roots of ragas in his musical compositions, along with cataloging his musical repertoires, and comparing them with the then contemporary Hindustani film songs, and so on. However, his efforts at domestication of Hindustani music, and making of the sonic vernacular in Mappila songs, are less explored.

Here, I will discuss the legendary meeting of Baburaj and A.V. Muhammed along with their music, comradery and religion, in the making of a sonic vernacular for Hindustani film songs, placing them in a historical timeline of the transmission of Hindustani film music and the evolving sound technologies.

A.V. Muhammed was a young boy when he met Baburaj for the first time; it was a gaanamela (local musical stage shows) programme somewhere in his native Tirurangadi in 1944, where Baburaj chanced to listen to his music and was impressed. From there, Baburaj mentored this young boy, later directed and orchestrated music for his Mappila music repertoires including devotional, political and marriage songs, and introduced his unique voice to the HMV (His Master’s Voice) gramophone recordings at Madras.


Born in a traditional Mappila Muslim family, his passion to be a singer was a distant dream due to familial responsibilities. He migrated to Shimoga in Karnataka to work in a restaurant, though music remained his all-time refuge. He always listened to Hindustani film songs, especially to Muhammed Rafi, Talat Mahmood, Mukesh, among others, and also enlivened his passion for singing at small gatherings among friends at Shimoga. His facility with Hindustani and Urdu drew him closer to such songs. In the peak of his passion for singing, he was unable to pay much attention to his business, and left the city to pursue his dream for music.

A.V. Muhammed with Rafi Saab (Credit: AVM Rafi collection).

Back home, he joined a local Mappila marriage concert troop led by A.T. Muhammed and started his professional musical career.12 Soon, he started his own musical troop, expanded it with famous male and female singers of the time, recorded many songs with them, and toured across Malabar, Bombay, Bangalore and the Gulf countries, for his widely extended listeners.

A.V.’s music was highly devotional, considering both the melody and lyrics; he modulated his voice in polyphony of Hindustani film music, qawwali style and in the melismatic intonation of Mappila songs. His voice was intense enough to convey the text of the songs he vocalized, comprehensively devotional, but addressed the subjects from praises of God, Prophet Muhammed, and other saints, to the songs warning misrouted human lives and about life hereafter. Notably, love and festivity rarely emanated from his voice. A.V.’s love for Hindustani film songs and its extensive reception among the people prompted him to think about making vernacular Mappila devotional song versions for the Hindustani film song repertoires. Without any doubt he predominantly chose Mohammed Rafi and his songs, which were close to his life and soul.

K.T. Muhammed was his compadre who wrote most of the lyrics for his parody songs. K.T. sat at the other side of his harmonium while composing, and the lyrics would be ready within minutes after A.V. hummed the original music to him. A.V. takes this partially composed lyric and tune to Madras where Baburaj was based. Even amid his busy schedule working on Malayalam film songs, he would find time to sit with A.V. and add his signature elements and notes, by giving new orchestration and scoring for such parodies. Sometimes, Baburaj’s modifications brought about significant changes in such parody tunes, ending up in brand new compositions. He also arranged to record some of those songs for HMV gramophone recordings at Madras.


The then famous playback singers like L.R. Iswari and L.R. Anjali recorded a number of duets with A.V. But more than gramophone recordings, A.V.’s songs got wider circulation through audio cassettes, which pravasi Muslim Malabaris invariably carried to Gulf with their emotions of home. Requests to hear him at mehfils frequently took him to Bahrain, Sharjah, UAE and Qatar.

One of the best and a fairly typical example of A.V’s parody songs adapted from Hindustani film song is given below as an introduction to the large corpus of such songs.

Mappila version with translation:

Mani deepame makki madeena nilave

(Oh! the lantern of Makkah and the Moonlight of Madina)

Makhbool yaseen Muhammad rasoole

(The accepted leader-Prophet Muhammed)

Udayastamana upakara deena

(The one who devoted from dawn to dusk)

udangum prabhave udayon rasoole

(The shining and illuminating-Prophet of the God)

Hindustani original with translation:

Tumhi mere mandir tumhi meri puja

(You are my temple, you are my prayer)

tumhi devta ho tumhi devta ho

(you are my God, you are my God)

Koyi meri ankhon se dekhe to samjhe

(If someone were to see through my eyes, they would understand)

tum mere kya ho ye tum mere kya ho

(what you mean to me, what you mean to me)


Here, one can see how the sound of an original Hindustani love song is taken out from its performance context, meaning and social realities to a very different one, giving it a devotional or religious perspective. The Mappila song version is a verbatim metrical adaptation of the Hindustani original. Apart from some ornamentation and improvisations in sonic characters, the tune is identical and interestingly suffices to transduce both the performance contexts, meanings and social realities.

In the starting of the second section (anupallavi) of the same song, for the line vishala prakasha vilankum sandesha, Baburaj registered his magical signature notes for A.V., and his melismatic ornamentation made the parody more impressive than its original. A.V.’s other hit song pakalal nishani alam was initially meant to pastiche Mohammed Rafi’s parwar digar-e-alam, but once again Baburaj added his magical notes into the original and made it an evergreen independent number among the Mappila songs. Manushya nee maranni-dunno (bachpan ki muhabbat ko), mahashaya ponnilav sayyid (suno suno ae duniya walo), swalla alaikka ya vassalam (Aane se uske aaye bahar), adaradi badar rakta-sakshikale (babul ki dua ye leti ja) are some other hit parody songs which took birth from the A.V.-Baburaj musical collaboration.


In conclusion, we need to acknowledge the fact that both Baburaj and A.V. Muhammed did not earn the appreciation or recognition that they deserve for their contributions to the musical world of modern Kerala, and in the making of Hindustani film songs and music. And paradoxically, the most popularly heard music director in Malayalam film industry, Baburaj, was not honored with any awards during his lifetime. N.V. Turakkal (A.V.’s harmonium accompanist) remembers with wonder that A.V. was denied artistry of All India Radio after many audition trails, even though AIR stations regularly broadcast his songs.13

There is a need for more studies on the life and oeuvres of such sidelined artists, their patrons, musical clubs and associations, who still enliven such bygone memories and traditions. The ‘Cultural Nites’, which nurtured such artists, are still extant and active among the people of Calicut and Kochi. The annually conducted ‘Rafi Nites’, and ‘Baburaj Nites’ are occasions to remember those legends, to honor each other with the names of their favorites, giving names like Junior Rafi, Kishore Abu, Kerala Saigal, Junior Mehboob and Junior A.V. There were many singers who mimicked these legendary singers and imitated their styles with huge acceptance.

Today, we have a handful of promising and trailblazing works on the translocal circulation of Hindustani film songs from Southeast Asia to West African terrains, in which attention to the yet explored realm of sound studies will give a new methodology and perspective to tap more into the sonic appropriations, adaptations and domestication of Hindustani film music, without diminishing the importance of its vernacular counterparts. There is a need for more scholarly endeavours from diverse geographical, cultural and disciplinary contours.


* I am grateful to A.V.M. Rafi (A.V. Muhammed) and Nimisha Salim (M.S. Baburaj), and Rohini Menon for her feedback and advice.


1. Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, pp. 138.

2. Jayson Beaster-Jones, Bollywood Sounds: The Cosmopolitan Mediations of Hindi Film Song. Oxford University Press, Oxford/New York, 2014.

3. Jayson, Bollywood Sounds.

4. Anna Morcom, Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema. Routledge, London/New York, 2007; Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture.

5. Anna Morcom, Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema, p. 233.

6. Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture, p. 131.

7. Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture, p. 134.

8. Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture, p. 140-41.

9. Shebeen Mehboob, Kadal Padiya Pattukal. Pendulam Books, Nilambur, 2018, p. 40.

10. C.K. Hassan Koya, ‘Malabarile Hindusthani Sangeeta Paramparyam’ in Jamal Kochangadi (ed.), Baburaj. Lipi Publications, Kozhikode, 2010, pp. 95-101.

11. V.M. Kutty, ‘Baburajum Mappilappattum’ in Jamal Kochangadi (ed.), Baburaj. Lipi Publications, Kozhikode, 2010, pp. 71-76.

12. Hamsa Kayanikkara, ‘Daivattilek Tirichuvechaoru Gramaphone’, Chandrika, 15-21 June 2013, pp. 11-23.

13. Hamsa Kayanikkara, ‘Daivattilek Tirichuvechaoru Gramaphoe’, p. 19.